Outside linebacker Mike Croel has spent most of his life re-creating life and images, but his most accomplished work may be piecing his NFL career back together.
Croel, a professional artist, has worked his way into the Ravens' starting lineup, and is drawing reviews from coaches that he has not heard since he was the Denver Broncos No. 1 draft pick (fourth overall) in 1991.
"I've been impressed with his intensity, speed and quickness," said Marvin Lewis, the Ravens' defensive coordinator. "He has not let up since the opening day of training camp, and he has a great desire to learn."
His eagerness to learn is what led Croel into art. Croel picked up the hobby as a child from his mother, Sue, and after she stopped he continued by majoring in the field at the University of Nebraska.
"I'm into the real contemporary abstracts, acrylics and airbrush," said Croel, 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds. "People often ask me how I can be so creative, yet at the same time beat up people on the field. Maybe it's like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type thing.
"I just know that I paint when I'm in the mood, and when that happens, I can paint all night and day."
Croel has other hobbies, like music, attending movies and surfing, but he is basically quiet and reserved and shares very little of his private life.
But nothing arouses Croel like an art show, especially when it is for one of his favorite charities.
Croel was adopted when he was only 5 days old, so he contributes some of his paintings to the Rocky Mountain Adoption Exchange. Last year Croel contributed $10,000 through the sale of four prints.
"It's just my way of giving something back," said Croel. "I had succeeded in playing football and was making all this money. I just said, hey, let's put this all to good use."
Success came early for Croel in the NFL. He had 84 tackles and 10 sacks in his first season when he was named the NFL Rookie of the Year by several distinguished organizations, and had 97 and 110 in the following two years.
But when the Broncos fired coach Dan Reeves in 1993, the team started to change defensive philosophies and Croel finally found himself looking for a job at the end of the 1994 season.
"During my first two years in Denver, we were more of an attacking defense and I was responsible for only a little bit of pass coverage," said Croel. "But when we changed coaches, I was asked to provide more pass coverage. Instead of making big plays, I was to help other people make plays."
Croel thought it would be different with the New York Giants last season. Instead, Croel was back to playing pass coverage again. He finished with 55 tackles, starting 14 of 16 games at weak-side linebacker.
Then along came the Ravens. Croel's forte always has been speed and quickness. Lewis has a philosophy of attack, penetrate and cause confusion. It was an ideal matchup.
"I had known that Marvin Lewis coached two great linebackers [Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene] in Pittsburgh, and they were guys I looked up to," said Croel. "I also knew that Marvin would play an attacking scheme, which would get my game back on the mark."
It appears that way. He is rambling and roaming, but still strong enough to stuff tight ends. Ravens offensive linemen have had a tough time blocking him, even though Croel is still rusty on his pass-rushing techniques.
"He is just so quick, good and fast," said Tony Jones, the Ravens' starting left tackle. "I played against him in in 1991, and he is just as good now as he was then. I think he is going to help our defense a lot."
"It has been years since I've rushed the quarterback," said Croel, who has been working on pass-rushing techniques with defensive line coach Jacob Burney. "I still need to learn some of the new plays, but I feel I can help this team win some games. I feel like I can be an impact player again."
Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles
Date: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.
Site: Memorial Stadium
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Tickets: 2,600 remain
Date .. .. .. ..Opponent .. .. .. ..Time
Aug. 10 .. .. at N.Y. Giants .. ..1 p.m.
Aug. 17 .. ...Green Bay .. .. .. .7 p.m.
Aug. 23 .. ...at Buffalo .. ..7: 30 p.m.
Ravens roll call
Pos.: Defensive back
Pro experience: 1
How acquired: Free agent in 1995
Highlights: Played twice in his first pro season. Originally signed with Cleveland Browns as a free agent (5/2/95) and was waived (8/22/95). Signed with Saskatchewan of CFL (10/16/95) and was released (10/30/95).
Personal: Career totals at Wisconsin were 96 tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass deflections. During his two-year career at Nassau Community College, he led the team to a 21-1 record with 91 career tackles, 15 pass deflections and five interceptions. Majored in sociology and enjoys music and watching television.
Pub Date: 7/30/96